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Big Can Be Beautiful
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Feb 12, 2019
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Sea Smoke, Sta. Rita Hills (California) Chardonnay 2016 ($60):  Wine drinkers seem to have very specific style preferences for Chardonnay wines.  My husband likes them sleek, crisp and unoaked, a la Chablis.  I like them rich but not very rich, and not too oaky -- and I like them expressive.  Many fine Burgundy-like Chardonnays from California need age before I find them sufficiently expressive for my enjoyment.

When I tasted this fine Sea Smoke Chardonnay, my first impression was that it is just too big.  As soon as the second taste, however, I became seduced by the wine’s complexity and expressiveness.  It’s a huge mouthful of Chardonnay but it’s delicious and very well-balanced.

I have written before about Sea Smoke, a biodynamic wine estate situated in the small Sta. Rita Hills AVA, in Santa Barbara County.  Founded in 1999, the property specializes in Pinot Noir and also grows Chardonnay.  The high vineyards face south along the Santa Ynez River gorge, which funnels cool air and fog from the ocean to the west.  Marine breezes and fog create a cool climate and a long growing season, leading to wines that are high in acidity but fully ripe, with pronounced flavor.

I have tasted the Sea Smoke Pinot Noirs several times, but this tasting was my first experience with the Chardonnay.  The 2016 Sea Smoke Chardonnay has fairly intense aromas of orange, orange peel, lemon, fresh apricot, toast and a floral note.  The wine enters your mouth tasting off-dry, an impression most likely created by the wine’s high alcohol (15 percent) and the intensity of its ripe fruity flavors.  It’s full-bodied and very flavorful, with creamy texture.  Notes of honey and nuttiness emerge in the taste, along with the fruity elements found on the nose, and toasty oak notes that lie beneath the fruit.  The wine’s acidity is high -- high enough to balance all that alcohol and richness and keep the wine lively rather than fat.

Winemaking involved fermentation in stainless steel tanks, followed by malolactic fermentation in oak and aging with lees-stirring for 16 months.  The oak was all French oak, 26 percent new.  To me, this does not seem to be a regimen that would particularly favor richness in the wine, but the expressive fruit accomplishes that effect.

The companion release to this Chardonnay is the 2016 Southing Pinot Noir ($65).  This might be my favorite vintage of this wine among those I have tasted to date.  It is not at all a juicy Pinot Noir but one in an earthy, savory style, with firm tannin and a saline minerality.  Aromas and flavors to me suggest mainly dark fruit, especially plum, but red fruit nuances also emerge. I t is a Pinot Noir of unusual extract that should evolve beautifully over the next several years.  Like the 2012, which I tasted with a year of bottle age, I score the2016 at 92 points -- even without the advantage of a year of bottle age.

Sea Smoke Chardonnay, 93 Points